Much-awaited autonomy

Codification of live-in relationship under Uttarakhand’s Uniform Civil Code Bill is a progressive step granting legal recognition to cohabitation, but it is prone to potential misuse

Much-awaited autonomy

In a landmark move that marks a significant pivot in the socio-legal landscape of India, the state of Uttarakhand has introduced the Uniform Civil Code Bill, spearheaded by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. Among its many forward-looking provisions, the Bill mandates the registration of live-in relationships, a decision that is not only progressive but also reflective of the evolving societal norms and the need for legal frameworks to keep pace with these changes.

The requirement for couples in live-in relationships to register with the local registrar within a month of entering into such a relationship is a bold step towards recognising and legitimising these relationships (Section 378). This move, undoubtedly, is a reflection of the state's commitment to respecting personal choices and fostering a society that values autonomy and freedom in personal relationships.

Legal recognition

Live-in relationships have long existed on the fringes of societal acceptance in India, often viewed with scepticism and moral apprehension. However, with changing times, an increasing number of couples are choosing to live together outside the bounds of marriage. This shift necessitates legal recognition and rights, much like those afforded to married couples, to protect the interests of individuals in such relationships.

The Uttarakhand Bill proposes not just the registration but also establishes a framework to ensure the legality of these relationships is scrutinised properly. By mandating a summary inquiry to verify the voluntary nature of the relationship and the absence of legal impediments, the Bill ensures that the rights of the most vulnerable, especially women and children born out of these relationships, are safeguarded.

Punishment for non-compliance

While the Bill's approach towards the mandatory registration of live-in relationships and the stipulated punishment for non-compliance—up to three months of imprisonment, a fine of Rs 10,000, or both (Section 387)—might seem stringent, it underscores the government's intent to ensure that such relationships do not remain clandestine. This provision aims to bring live-in relationships into the legal domain, making them transparent and accountable, and thereby, more socially acceptable.

Empowering women and children

One of the most commendable aspects of the Bill is its provisions for the protection and welfare of women and children born in live-in relationships. By equating the rights of women in live-in relationships to those of married women, especially concerning maintenance (Section 388), the Bill addresses a significant gap in the legal system that often left women in such relationships vulnerable and without recourse. Furthermore, by recognising the legitimacy of children born out of these relationships, the Bill ensures that they are not subjected to social stigma and have the same legal rights as children born to married couples (Section 379). However, there are concerns that these very protections could be misused. One can argue that the possibility exists for such laws to be exploited, potentially leading to situations where claims for maintenance or rights could be made unjustly, placing undue pressure on the other party in the relationship. This perspective calls for a balanced approach in the Bill's application to ensure that while support and protection are provided, there are also adequate safeguards against potential misuse.

Facilitating social acceptance

The codification of live-in relationships through this Bill is a monumental step towards their social acceptance. By providing a legal framework that recognises and regulates these relationships, the stigma and secrecy surrounding them can be significantly reduced. Couples will no longer need to live "in hiding," fearing societal reprimand. This openness can lead to a more inclusive society where personal choices are respected and valued. The Bill's forward-thinking stance on live-in relationships is, however, not without its limitations. It specifically defines live-in relationships within a heterosexual context, offering legal recognition exclusively to unions between men and women. This definition fails to encompass same-sex couples, who remain marginalised with respect to the legal benefits and recognition that the Bill proposes.

A step towards gender equality

The Bill's provision for mandatory registration of live-in relationships and the same marriage age for both genders is a stride towards achieving gender equality. It acknowledges the agency of individuals, regardless of gender, to make choices about their personal lives and relationships. This move aligns with the global discourse on gender equality and the rights of individuals to lead lives of their choosing without being encumbered by traditional norms.

The road ahead

The introduction of Uttarakhand's Uniform Civil Code Bill, with its recognition of live-in relationships, heralds a progressive shift in the legal recognition of personal bonds. However, the bill's true efficacy will depend on its judicious application, public education, and the society's response to it. Government and civil society must collaborate to foster an environment where personal choices are respected, and the public is sensitised to the nuances of diverse relationships.

Furthermore, while the bill is a potential template for other states, it currently overlooks same-sex couples, suggesting an area ripe for future amendments. Inclusivity demands that legal status and protections be extended to all partnerships, irrespective of sexual orientation, to genuinely reflect the spectrum of modern relationships and uphold equality and non-discrimination.

Additionally, the potential for the exploitation of the bill's provisions, particularly concerning maintenance claims, cannot be ignored. Protections against misuse are crucial to safeguard against unjust pressures and claims that could arise from the bill's current iteration.

Conclusively, the success of this legislation lies in striking a balance between empowerment and the prevention of abuse. Uttarakhand's legal framework must evolve to protect personal autonomy, ensure justice and fairness for all involved, and reflect a society that values individual choices and gender equity. The path ahead should be carved with careful consideration to make the legal system robust yet flexible, safeguarding the rights it aims to protect while preventing the possibility of exploitation, thereby nurturing a society that honours each individual's choice without compromising on the integrity of justice.

The writer is Faculty of Law, Jindal Global Law School, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Views expressed are personal

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